There are so many dogs and cats (yes, cats) at Chris King bike components that there are signs in the factory warning of no-animal zones to keep the critters safe. Workers, some of them anyway, are dressed about as far down as you can dress and still be allowed in public. Upstairs, in the cafeteria, a full-time chef prepares healthy meals at low cost. Downstairs, in the bike room, the walls are painted with portraits of Marco Pantani and Eddy Merckyx, and in the locker room, the lockers themselves are vented with warm air, to remove the funk of Portland weather that clings to cycling clothes.
Nothing about Chris King is business as usual. Especially its successful effort to make the best available products in America in an environmentally sensitive way while treating workers right – and still making a profit.
A good example is on the factory floor, where low-VOC soybean oil is used to lube the cutting machines that reduce Ohio-milled aluminum into the first likenesses of headsets. The goal is to reduce waste, but the cutting tools used to cut down parts from ti or steel or aluminum stock have to be lubricated, and if that oil were petroleum based it would contain all sorts of toxins that would have to be managed. Respirators would need to be worn; vent systems would have to filter the nasties out of the air and do…something with them. Solvents would have to be used to strip away the grease, and then the solvents would also need to be carefully monitored. As it is the soybean oil just makes you think you’ve visited a commercial kitchen with an Asian bent. The air is faintly spicy with it.
So it’s not toxic. But it is expensive. It still needs to be recycled.
Which is why there’s an a byzantine system in place to capture every drip off every machine along with a bazillion metal shavings. The oil is put into a huge centrifuge the size of a VW Beetle that divides it from the metal. The metal is sent down a chute into a scary looking press that applies 400 tons of force in two seconds and then spits out the scrap into heavy metal cakes (think Safeway birthday cakes made of shiny metal shards). The cakes go to a recycler and the pressing process has a lovely side effect: It’s like a massive orange squeezer, spitting soybean oil out for yet more re-use.
If all this sounds tremendously complex, it is. More complex than you can imagine.
For instance, a huge vent captures residual heat from 2,000-degree kilns that are used to heat-treat parts and sends the energy back into the HVAC system. Walnut shells are used in a giant tumbler that polishes parts ceaselessly because other polishing agents are toxic and the fine dust can be dangerous to employees.
None of this just happened. King managers studied every stage of production and focused on process, reducing waste, and then reducing it again.
Following that thread, fewer chemical byproducts allows all King parts to be washed at a final stage of production in bays of standard commercial dishwashers. Managers even realized that that the plastic dishwasher trays would easily accommodate bottom brackets and so the trays are used to stack the parts, which are then transferred to reusable egg crates that prevent parts from scratching each other.
Through it all Chris King has grown. Demand is high, affording the opportunity for yet more growth. But despite success, Chris King the man, the company’s founder who started the business in California and has moved progressively northward twice, will tell you that the reason more stuff isn’t made in America is that American doesn’t make the machines that make the products any more. King’s factory needs to make its own machines and do its own tooling; many of its machines are outdated and have to be babied to keep functioning.
And although you’re always hearing how so many Americans are out of work, people who can do these jobs are hard to find, because not enough of us our taught to work with our hands in school. Manufacturing King parts is complex and most employees need to know how to do several jobs, since King responds to orders in real time, not stocking shelves with inventory for orders that might come in. You have to be able to switch jobs in a hurry, and do everything well.
These challenges, though, seem surmountable, like making bike parts in an eco-friendly manner and still turning a profit.
As I’m leaving King I learn one last very cool fringe benefit of working there: The company needs skilled labor and, despite what you might guess, being a bike nut isn’t a job requirement. But King does teach employees basic bike maintenance for free. It’s a way to connect employees with the end product, says King’s Dylan VanWeelden. “If you don’t ride, or didn’t ride before, you maybe gain a little pride in the product and learn what it’s for. You get in shape riding to work, and something clicks about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
He might have added: And why they’re doing it the way they’re doing it.
Photos by Michael Frank